Publisher: Warner Bros.
Release Date: June 17, 2008
Of all the cartoons you can make a gaming license from, "Wacky Races" has to be top of the pile. It's a crazy racer where the competition use ridiculously overpowered abilities and gadgets to take each other down a notch, and yet the perfect game based on it has so far eluded us, and as the cartoon becomes more dated each year, the chance of it happening becomes less and less likely. The Dreamcast game came close, but suffered due to a lack of weaponry variety and a level of slowdown that made it uncomfortable with one player, and unplayable with four. Thankfully, publishers haven't given up on trying to release a game that matches the enormous potential, and <i>Wacky Races: Crash and Dash</i> for the DS makes a noble effort by bringing a few new concepts to the starting line. Unfortunately, they don't mesh together well enough to create an experience that I can recommend.
Realizing it's quite difficult to make a decent racer on the DS (first-party <i>Mario Kart</i> excluded), the developers have decided to do something a little different and create a game where the camera is not positioned directly behind the car or in the cockpit. Instead, the track is viewed from the side, which sometimes changes to top-down when the course's direction changes. It's a little odd but actually works quite well when you consider how crowded the television series always used to be. The downside to this is that the races have a certain random element to them in which anyone can win (aside from Dick Dastardly — just like in the TV series). You hardly ever get a significant lead, and if you do, it's generally short-lived. There's very little skill involved, and you often find races getting away from you for no particular reason.
In terms of capturing the mood of the show, <i>Wacky Races</i> is pretty much spot-on — right down to the fiendish interruptions from Dastardly. Where past games based on the license have just had the villain and his snickering assistant Muttley as another racer or an unlockable, he is sensibly removed here, but still very much a part of the game. Every lap, the race will stop and you'll hear Dastardly's latest scheme, at which point you must complete a minigame for damage limitation, such as putting a bridge back up through a dot-to-dot puzzle or cutting through toxic fumes with the stylus. It's a cute diversion the first few times, but given there's only a handful of challenges, they quickly become wearing and break up the flow of the race — something that developers should never let happen. The fact that they've included these minigames as an option to play through in their own right on the main menu is astonishing, although I'd be amazed if anyone but unfortunate reviewers like myself go back to them more than once.
Yet they do fit the tone of the show, as do the charming visuals. The decision not to ambitiously head for full 3-D and let the graphics suffer was an inspired one, and the 2- and 3-D models of the cars are all instantly recognizable. Indeed, the presentation is outstanding all the way through, right down to the cut scenes that interrupt the race when Dastardly's planning something. The only area that the visuals fail a little is the tracks, which lack the same kind of variety and charm of the races in the show; the courses all share the same blandness, and you'd struggle to tell one from another. This means that <i>Wacky Races</i> is best dealt with in small doses, which is all too easy, given that each set of races can easily be polished off in 15 minutes.
The sound is possibly the very best area of the title and has everything you'd expect, and perhaps a little more. As well as the classic theme tune (though it's questionable how many DS players will remember a 40-year-old cartoon) and a number of chirpy ditties throughout the races, the pun-spouting announcer makes the same kind of contributions he did on the show. True, you may have found him annoying all those years ago, and time has been less than kind to the show's comedy, but it does give you a kind of retro glow ... until he starts repeating each expression. The cartridge size means that there's only a limited bit of commentary here, but it makes for non-intrusive background noise even at its most repetitive. The cut scenes with Dastardly look like they could have come straight off the TV, and with the voices sounding spot-on, this really is one for the die-hard fans (who may or may not exist and/or own Nintendo DSes.)
Unfortunately the best presentation in the world can't make up for the controls, and although they're novel, they just don't work well enough. Like Zelda on the DS, the stylus controls where you move and where you fire your weapons and power-ups, but unlike the acclaimed RPG, it fails to do so with any panache. The idea is that you can control your speed with how far you hold your stylus from the car, but it doesn't seem to make much difference. It actually makes firing your power-ups something of a challenge because when you try to aim at another racer, you immediately stop accelerating. There's also the problem with the stylus blocking the screen when you're on the straights, which is more of an annoyance than a serious problem, thanks to the predictability of the courses.
Neither of these problems match the worst offender of the control system's "delights," though — the one that stops you playing it in public, unless you want people to sit as far away from you as possible on trains. This is for the final straight of the race, which requires a mad dash for the finish ("mad" being the operative word) where you blow hard into the DS' microphone while slashing your stylus from side to side. Sometimes you have to realize that a unique control system might be unique because it's dreadful, and this is one of those instances.
Perhaps the biggest letdown, though, is that once you've completed all the rallies on normal and hard modes (unlocked after beating normal), that's it. You can play trap mode, which involves playing Dastardly's minigames over and over again, but unless you suffer from amnesia, you'll have already seen more of them than you'd want to in a lifetime. There's no multiplayer to speak of, and while it's easy enough to understand why, it's still something which would have lifted the title a bit more, making it slightly more worthy of a recommendation.
I was fully expecting <i>Wacky Races: Crash and Dash</i> to be bad, and it is, but in a far braver way than expected. It actually left me frustrated because it manages to do a lot right, but ultimately, it's too lacking in too many areas to be something I can recommend. Like <i>Duck Amuck</i>, this is a noble experiment in bringing classic cartoons to the DS' tactile controls, but in the same way, this is best seen as a curiosity and not the stellar game it could have been. Shame.
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